Economic and environmental challenges impacting US Christmas tree industry
The Christmas tree industry in Western North Carolina (WNC) is confronting various challenges, including inflation, declining farm numbers, and environmental threats. Darrell Pitts, owner of Sugar Plum Farms in Newland, represents the changing face of this industry. Pitts, who expanded his family’s farm to 200 acres, notes a dramatic decrease in tree farms in WNC, from over 1,000 in his childhood to less than 100 today.
The North Carolina Tree Association indicates that there are 853 tree farms across the state, but the industry is experiencing significant shifts. For consumers, the cost of Christmas trees is rising, attributed to soaring fertilizer prices and other economic pressures. Pitts points out that a tree costing $55 a few years ago might now be priced between $70 to $75.
Sugar Plum Farms, thriving with fields of 6- to 8-foot trees, exemplifies the struggle of balancing tradition with modern economic realities. Wholesale business constitutes 75% of their revenue, serving various states in the Southeast. However, the industry faces severe challenges. The encroachment of developers on high-elevation land, crucial for Christmas tree growth, is a growing concern. Additionally, phytophthora disease, particularly affecting Fraser firs, is causing significant damage with no known cure.
North Carolina, a leading producer of Christmas trees, is witnessing a transformation in its industry. Jennifer Greene, executive director of the North Carolina Tree Association, acknowledges the influence of inflation on tree prices and the generational shift in farm ownership. Many small family-run farms disappear as older generations retire or pass away, and younger people are less inclined to enter the farming business.
Contrasting this trend, Chelsea Wilson-Thayer in Bakersville is an example of the younger generation taking up the mantle. Managing Snow Creek farm, she focuses on the cut-and-choose segment and adapts to modern consumer behaviors, such as using social media and accepting credit cards. Wilson-Thayer has maintained stable pricing for her trees, despite the broader trend of increasing costs.
In the backdrop of economic and environmental pressures, the Christmas tree industry in North Carolina persists, driven by tradition and the passion of farmers like Pitts and Wilson-Thayer. As they navigate these challenges, the legacy of their predecessors remains a guiding force, even in the face of personal hardships and industry-wide transformations.